Directing Anger

A man who fails to discern the devil’s wiles allows himself to become annoyed at everything, permitting anger to master him, and so he ‘gives place to the devil’. But a man who stifles every upsurge of anger resists the devil and repels him, and gives no place to him within himself. Anger ‘gives place to the devil’, as soon as it is regarded as something just and its satisfaction is felt to be lawful. Then the enemy immediately enters the soul and begins to suggest thoughts, each more irritating than the last. The man starts to be aflame with anger as though he were on fire. This is the fire of hell; but the poor man thinks that he is burning with zeal for righteousness, whereas, there is never any righteousness in wrath (James i. 20).

This is the form of illusion peculiar to wrath, just as there is another form of illusion peculiar to lust. A man who speedily overcomes wrath disperses this illusion and thus repels the devil as though by a strong blow in the chest. Is there anyone who, after extinguishing his anger and analyzing the whole business in good faith, does not find that there was something wrong at the basis of his irritation? But the enemy changes the wrong into a sense of self-righteousness and builds it up into such a mountain that it seems as though the whole world would go to pieces if our indignation is not satisfied.

You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile – but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil – not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honor and glory – my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame.

(Theophan the Recluse, The Art of Prayer, p. 211-212)

Deliver Us From Evil

“The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.

Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation.

And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: “And lead us not into temptation.”

The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him.

It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted in him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.

We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.”   (Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 78-81)

Evil Imaginations

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.   (Genesis 6:5)

. . . the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.   (Genesis 8:21)

The Genesis account of the Great Flood begins and ends with God woefully acknowledging that the humans He created had a heart which was inclined toward imagining evil  even from when the human is quite young.  Before and after the Great Flood, nothing had changed in the humans.   Evil  is described in Scripture and Tradition as coming from within the human – from the imagination of the heart – not from Satan or demons.   Humans don’t need a great evil force to push us to do evil, we are quite capable on our own of imagining evil things and then doing them.

The Virgin Mary at the Annunciation sings a hymn in which she recognizes that God’s incarnation means the healing of the human heart.   “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts …” (Luke 1:51)  For the Theotokos that imagination of the human heart which has conjured up so much evil and caused so much grief for humanity has been blown away by God entering the human condition in the incarnation.

Jesus Himself points to the human heart as the source of all sin.  Christ teaches:

And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”  (Mark 7:20-23)

The rabbis at the time of Jesus also taught that the origin of evil is not in Satan but rather evil resulted in the world from the presence of a wicked imagination (or desire) in the human heart.  The 2nd Century Christian book, The Shepherd of Hermas repeats this rabbinical idea that evil in the world originates in the imagination of the human heart.  We both can conceive evil and bring it into existence.  This idea then is found repeatedly in Orthodox theologians.  St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 384AD) writes:

“Man was …. the image and likeness of the power that rules all creation; and this likeness to the ruler of all things also extended to man’s power of self-determination: man could choose whatever pleased him and was not enslaved to any external necessity.  But man was led astray by deception and deliberately drew upon himself that catastrophe which all  mortals now share.  Man himself invented evil: he did not find it in God.  Nor did God make death; it was man himself who, as it were, was the creator of all that is evil.”  (From Glory to Glory, pp 112-113)

St John Cassian (d. 435AD) says:

“A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. It is for this reason that God, the Creator of all and the Doctor of men’s souls, who alone has accurate knowledge of the soul’s wounds, does not tell us to forsake the company of men; He tells us to root out the causes of evil within us and to recognize that the soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men. When we abandon our brothers for some apparently good reason, we do not eradicate the motives for dejection but merely exchange them, since the sickness which lies hidden within us will show itself again in other circumstances.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc 2212-24)

A thousand years after those early Patristic writers, the Orthodox tradition continued to offer this same idea that human are the source of evil in the world.  So St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359) teaches:

“That evil which is evil in itself, namely sin, originates from us.  . . .  Just as illness was not created by God, although the creature who suffers from it was, so sin was not made by Him, although the rational soul created By Him willingly turns aside after it.  This soul was honored with free will and independent life, as without this honor it would have been pointless for it to be rational.”  (The Homilies, p 518)

In our daily Orthodox Vespers service we find a prayer asking God to deliver us from this evil imagining of our heart:

O Lord our God, Who bowed the heavens and came down for the salvation of the human race; look upon Your servants and Your inheritance; for to You, the awesome Judge, Who yet love mankind, have Your servants bowed their heads and submissively bent their necks, not waiting for help from men, but asking for Your mercy and looking confidently for Your salvation.   Guard them at all times, both during this present evening and in the approaching night, from every foe, from all adverse powers of the Devil, from vain thoughts, and from evil imaginations.

We pray every day at Vespers that God will deliver us from the evil imaginations of our heart.  We ask God to guard us against the evil that comes from within our hearts.   We ask God daily to prevent us from becoming the source of even more evil in the world.

Great Lent is our time to set a guard over our heart, so that we will not be inclined to evil.  This is something for which we pray throughout Lent:

Incline not my heart to any evil thing, nor to practice wicked deeds.” (Psalms 141:4)


The Power of God and of the State

It is a presidential election year in the United States, which as I’ve noted before tends to cause a fair amount of angst in my fellow parishioners.  This year’s election has been even more troubling.  Often people are afraid what will happen if “the other” party wins the election.  This year people seem anxious and afraid even if their party wins.  Here is a quote from Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov describing what the proper power of government is from a Christian point of view.  All of the things we might think of as the duties of government have a spiritual basis.

“Here there is a direct analogy with evil. God does not suppress it automatically by his omnipotence. Likewise he does not suppress social inequality by force, but makes it a spiritual victory over the passion of possession. In extreme cases, public authority ought to intervene. However, the state is not called upon to realize the Kingdom of God on earth. Its task is to prevent the world from becoming a hell and thus to place limits against the progression of evil among us.” (In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, p 88)

 Government, big or small, cannot create the kingdom of God on earth.  As Evdokimov notes God Himself does not “suppress social inequality by force.”  Rather Christ appeals to us to overcome our passions by voluntarily engaging in a spiritual warfare.  As Christians we should strive for a spiritual victory over our self-centered interests by making love our aim (1 Corinthians 14:1).  Sometimes the government has to intervene when social inequalities exceed what is humane, when the powerful behave inhumanly and the poor are dehumanized.  But he sees this as the exception, not the rule.   Certainly in history Christianity changed the all powerful Roman Empire, but did it without violence and without an election.  It was a change of hearts that occurred in enough citizenry to make a difference.

As Evdokimov notes the task of the state “is to prevent the world from becoming a hell.”   That in itself is no mean task.  It is of course made even more difficult if the election itself seems like hell!   The role of the state according to Evdokimov is “to place limits against the progression of evil among us.”   Evil however is not a nation with an army whom we can fight with conventional weapons.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…”   (Ephesians 6:11-18)

What it means for us is that politics is not purely secular with no religious element.  Evil is a theological concept.   Without God we cannot win that battle against evil.  Without God, we will never even be able to agree on what evil is.  But even with God, we are not going to establish Paradise on earth through government or armies.  We can resist the forces of evil.  We can work to make sure the earth does not become hell by opposing evil.

Ridding Ourselves of Anger

Cassian JohnSt. John Cassian (d. 435) meditating on the Gospel saw anger arising within us as a great threat to our salvation as it cuts us off from loving God or neighbor.  Additionally for St. John it is not a matter only if we vent our rage.  He says we need to cut off such anger in our hearts before we ever act on it.  Our hearts must become pure.  Just controlling outward expressions and behavior is not enough to purify our hearts.   St. John’s words are an interpretation of what St. Paul advises: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27).   For Cassian, the only way to prevent anger from becoming sin is to deal with it in your heart before you are tempted to express it.

“Hence, if we desire to obtain in its entirety that divine prize of which it is said: ‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God,’ this must not only be cut off from our actions but must even be uprooted from the depths of our soul. For a wrathful anger that has been checked in speech and that has not manifested itself in deeds is of no value whatsoever if God, from whom the secrets of the heart are not concealed, sees that it exists in the recesses of our breast.  For the words of the Gospel command that the roots of our vices be cut off rather than the fruits, which will certainly never grow anymore once the shoot has been pulled up. And when they have been pulled up not from the surface of our deeds and actions but from the depths of our thoughts, our mind will then be able to abide in utter patience and holiness. And therefore, in order for murder not to be perpetrated, anger and hatred are cut off; without them the crime of murder can never be committed.

The Fathers in general allowed that the passions in themselves were not evil.  Even anger can serve a righteous purpose.  The ability to become angry itself was given to us by God to serve a good purpose.  Anger can sometimes motivate us to resist evil and sin.  However, as experience shows, anger often is vented without any wisdom.  When expressed in an uncontrolled fashion it becomes destructive and we use it to excuse whatever behavior we engage in.  So anger in itself may not always be sin, but neither does it always lead to righteousness.  It can be a scourge that sets off a series of angry responses in others – a chain reaction not of righteousness but of sinful passion which leads to further anger and sin.   St. John Cassian continues:

For ‘whoever is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.’ And: ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.’ In that he desires, namely, to kill him in his heart, even though other human beings have not seen him shed his blood with his own hand or weapon, the Lord, who renders each person a reward or punishment not only for his accomplished deeds but even for his desires and intentions, declares him a murderer on account of his angry disposition. As he himself says through the prophet: ‘Their works and their thoughts I am coming to gather together with all nations and tongues.’ And again: ‘Their thoughts within them accusing or defending them, on the day when God will judge the secrets of men.’ […]  Hence it behooves the athlete of Christ, who is contending lawfully, to root out the movements of wrath. The perfect medicine for this diseases is that we realize, first, that in no way are we permitted to get angry, whether for an unjust or a just cause, knowing that we shall at once lose the light of discretion and firm and correct counsel, as well as goodness itself and the restraints of righteousness, if the guiding principle of our heart is obscured by darkness; and then, that the purity of our mind will soon be driven out and that it can never become a temple of the Holy Spirit as long as the spirit of wrath dwells in us.

Perhaps part of the Desert Father thinking on anger is that anger which continually abides in the heart will prevent us from ever having a pure heart.  We have to rid ourselves of being possessed by anger and seeing life through the lens of anger.  ‘

Anger may occur in our hearts in reaction to something we experience, but then that anger has to be harnessed by wisdom, humility and love to become an energy that inspires us to the good.

If we are simply “an angry person”, no one else will ever see any righteousness in our anger.  Only when we are a person of peace, will we ourselves be able to experience our anger as a righteous reaction to evil.  Only then will we be able to use the energy of anger to deal with sin.


Lastly, we should understand that we are never allowed to pray or make petition to God when we are angry. Above all, we should keep before our eyes the uncertain state of our human condition, daily realizing that we shall depart from our bodies and that our chaste abstinence, the renunciation of all our property, the contempt of wealth, and the toil of fasting and keeping vigil will confer nothing on us if eternal punishment is being readied for us by the Judge of all on account of wrath and hatred alone.” (THE INSTITUTES, pp 203-204)

If we see evil, anger can be a right reaction to it.   But then, we have to cast the anger aside in order to pray to God for the wisdom, humility and love needed to know how to act.  Cassian warns that a prayer said in anger and hatred which asks for the destruction of another will only result in our being judged by God.  Anger can energize to act in the face of evil, but then we cannot let that same anger control our lives, but rather have to rid ourselves of personal wrath in order to turn to and trust in God.

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”* says the Lord.Therefore
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”*
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  

(Romans 12:17-21)

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. (3 John :11)

The Limited Power of Satan

St. John Damascene (d. 749AD) is perhaps known for having written a summary of Christian theology and beliefs (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith), which was in fact his own synthesis of the Patristic writers who came before him.

St. John describes how Satan and demons came into existence and his description of the existence of evil reflects the commonly held views of his day.  Satan is NOT God’s opposite and equal – far from it.  Satan and demons have no power except what god allows them to have (One can think of the Gospel lesson of the Gadarene swine where the demons have to ask permission of Christ to leave the man they had possessed.  The demons do not even have power over swine, as is stated and prayed in the pre-baptismal exorcism prayers).

Why does God give Satan permission to do anything?

This has to do with God’s own respect for the free will He has bestowed on some of his creatures including both humans and angels.  Neither humans nor angels are automatons – preprogrammed beings that have no choice in what they do.  We can freely choose good or evil, just like the angels.  However in terms of having power over our lives, Satan and demons are limited by what God allows them to do, AND by our own cooperation with them.  For neither Satan nor angels can make us do anything either.   They cannot violate our free will.  The will of God and the will of any human are thus both limitations put on the power of the Evil One.

St. John Damascene writes:

“Among the angelic powers the chief of the terrestrial order, the one to whom God had entrusted the task of looking after the earth, was not evil by nature, he had not received any trace of evil from his Creator. He was good. However, he did not maintain the light and honor that God had given him. By a deliberate act of his own free will he rebelled against the Creator. He turned his face away from goodness and fell into evil. Evil in fact is merely the absence of good, as darkness is the absence of light. A host of angels placed under his command followed him in the fall. Despite their angelic nature, they also freely plunged from goodness down to evil and became wicked. The devils cannot do anything against us without God’s permission. But with God’s permission they are powerful. All wickedness, all the passions are inspired by them. But listen: God allows them to suggest sin to a person, but they cannot force him to do it. We ourselves are responsible for accepting or rejecting their seductive suggestions.”    (Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, pp. 127-128)

In every Orthodox Baptism, we pray over the baptismal candidate:

O Lord of Sabaoth, the God of Israel, Who heals every malady and every infirmity:  Look upon Your servant; prove him (her) and search him (her) and root out of him (her) every operation of the devil.  Rebuke the unclean spirits and expel them, and purify the works of Your hands; and exerting Your great power, speedily crush down Satan under his (her) feet; and give him (her) victory over the same, and over his unclean spirits.  (3rd Exorcism Prayer)

May we all be so victorious over the Evil One.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre

Metropolitan Tikhon, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, has asked all of us to join in prayer for the shooting victims – the children, families as well as the entire school community and town – of Newtown, Connecticut.  We all share in the horror of the terror, we grieve with those who grieve, and we are thankful with those who survived.

Mothers weeping over their murdered children. 13th Century Mosaic, Chora Church, Istanbul.

The phenomenon of mass shootings, seemingly on the rise in our country, will bring about further discussion on how to deal with social problems.   There will be calls for more laws, more arrests, more guns, more security, more prison terms – all things that have been tried in recent years and yet the tragedy of mass murders seems to increase.  Maybe instead we will consider investing more in dealing with mental and spiritual health and in helping individuals and families deal with mental and spiritual problems.  For even when some recognize serious problems in an individual – sociopathic, pyschopathic, and evil – there are few places where one can turn for meaningful help.  In a land which values freedoms, what is to happen with those who will use those freedoms to harm themselves and others?

At least some in the mental health professions do recognize that there is a need to admit there exists something which is evil and should be labeled so.  Some admit there is a difference between mental illness and evil.  They would say we must not confuse the two because they require different responses and treatments.

Newtown Connecticut shooting

Our situation is not much different from what was described 2000 years ago in St. Mark’s Gospel.   Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes and,

“there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit,  who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him any more, even with a chain;  for he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.  Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones.” (Mark 5:2-5)

A man no one knew how to control and who couldn’t be contained by known human methods; even chains and fetters didn’t stop him from his evil destruction.  Forward 2000 years to our time, and even with ‘progress’ in science, mental health and law enforcement, we still lack the know-how of what to do with such people.  Methods we have tried have not eliminated the problem nor prevented new cases from appearing.  How much spiritual, psychological and social energy and resources one person possessed with such a spirit drains from family, friends and an entire community.   Do we have the diagnostics, resources and will to deal with these cases?  Can we afford not to?

President Lincoln’s murder weapon.

We can ask God for the wisdom for us to deal with these spiritual and psychological problems on earth.   Maybe we have to recognize that there are problems that normal human reason cannot resolve – that we are crossing some line into another realm which is resistant to chains and fetters or science and reason.  This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon reason and research to return to some pre-scientific thinking or worldview.  It means only using all the resources at our disposal and not eliminating some ideas (like the notion of evil) just because we find them inconvenient, awkward or antiquated.  Wisdom recognizes that when it comes to human behavior, law is not enough to explain everything.

The letter of Metropolitan Tikhon follows.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

All of us have been shaken by the news of the tragic death of twenty young children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. All of a sudden, the image of Rachel, who was ‘weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’ [Jeremiah 31:15], becomes more than simply a passage from scripture. Rather, it becomes an unfortunate reality in the lives of those affected by the senseless incident and in our own hearts, as we share in their lamentation and sorrow.

None of us can truly understand the personal distress that so many are facing today. Yet every one of us knows the reality of such tragedy and experience it in the depths of our hearts. Our very being is shaken and we feel powerless to do anything. Nevertheless, we make an effort to direct our prayers towards the families of those who have lost their most dear ones, most of whom are innocent and pure children.

Concerning those who have fallen asleep, Saint Paul exhorts us not to “grieve even as others who have no hope” [1 Thessalonians 4:13]. And yet, herein he does not forbid us from grieving. Now is the time for us to weep, but we must weep with the firm hope that comes from our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. “Shed tears, but remain calm; weep modestly, and with fear of God,” writes Saint John Chrysostom. And following this example, each of us must strive to transform our sorrow into prayer.

I therefore call on the clergy and the faithful of the Orthodox Church in America to offer fervent prayers for the souls of those whose lives have been so brutally cut short and for the consolation of all those whose existence has been shattered by this unfathomable event. I also ask that those who are physically able to offer their services to the grieving and the broken-hearted, both in the Newtown community and throughout this land.

It is at times like this that we must put our faith into action and offer our Christian support and love, to make our prayers concrete through action. Many have been affected, and many more will be overcome by grief, despair and isolation. We must ensure that we do all we can to provide a sense of true community to all those in need and to bear their burdens as the Lord asks us to.

Together with my brother bishops on the Holy Synod, I offer my condolences to all the grieving families, and I pray that they will find hope in the abundant grace of God. May they be given strength at this most painful moment and find comfort along the difficult path that lies ahead. Let no one among us have any fear, but let us remember that our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome fear, has trampled down death, and has granted us eternal life and great mercy.

Rachel weeping for her deceased children (Matthew 2:18)

Reality: ‘I am for peace, but they are for war.’

I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war!

(Psalms 120:7)

As I’ve been convalescing from my spinal fusion surgery, I have a lot of down time, and am just beginning to feel well enough to feel the need to do things to occupy my time.  I listened in my first week home to THE HOBBIT on my Kindle text to voice reader.   It is not a human reading the text, but a mechanical reader, which takes some getting used to.  Nevertheless, I was thankful for having a device that could read to me while I lay flat listening.    I read THE HOBBIT 35 years or more ago, and although I remember liking the book, I found that I really didn’t remember the story at all.

As in the entire LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, I do remember having an emotional reaction to the role war plays in the writings of Tolkien.  He was not an idealist, like I am.  He did not envision a world without war or without evil or without a struggle between good and evil.  That struggle takes place not only on the macro level of all people on earth, but in the heart of each individual as well.

I remember being troubled when I first read his trilogy by Tolkien’s realism regarding war and the almost necessary role it has in history.  On this earth there is and will be struggle, and there are forces that are trying to prevail over the rest of inhabitants of earth.   Tolkien does accept the grand epic notion of  a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and yet in my reading of him, he is not blaming Satan for the existence of war, struggle or evil on earth.  Evil lurks in the hearts of earth’s inhabitants.  Satan is not much needed to cause war when the inhabitants of the earth are so ready to use violence to attain even unimportant goals.

There is always someone or some group which desires to have power over others and is willing to do anything to gain and maintain their position of power.  There always are some who are willing to enslave others to attain their goals.  Evil and wickedness are in this sense forces that can work upon our hearts and minds, and it happens at every level of human existence from the individual up to entire cultures and empires.

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.   And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”  (Genesis 6:5-6)

I appreciate that recognition of what lurks in the hearts of earth’s inhabitants in the writings of JRR Tolkien.  The struggle with evil that we each and always face is not just the fault of Satan, but it is a true spiritual warfare in each of us.  Sometimes it becomes a collective when an entire nation embraces evil design and decides it is OK to oppression or destroy their fellow inhabitants on earth.

I wish it weren’t so, and by nature am a pacifist, but I realize Tolkien is right about the nature of evil in the world’s population as he is correct about war as a means for people to achieve their goals or to oppose those who want to oppress.

Even after the Great Flood:   the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth…'”  (Genesis 8:21)

My pacifistic beliefs are not the result of personal holiness, but the result of wishful idealism.  Would that we on this planet could find it in our hearts not to hate others, not to be ready to kill those different from us, not to be willing to enslave those we think as lesser than ourselves, not to rely on violence to attain our wishes and goals.  But, alas, as in the world Tolkien created, violence and war seem to be part of the fabric which makes up our hearts.

Jesus said: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery,  coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.   All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”   (Mark 7:21-23)

So the quote of the little Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, stood out in my mind as I listened to the tale:

“You are a fool, Bilbo Baggins, and you made a great mess of that business with the stone; and there was a battle, in spite of all your efforts to buy peace and quiet, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for that.”   (Kindle 4368-69)

Like Bilbo, I wish people could get along on planet earth, and I’m so often dismayed by as he was by the stubbornness and lack of good will even among some who are supposed to be allies.   How quickly we so often resort to violence and how willingly we go to war.  maybe it is Tolkien’s realism, or maybe it is the biblical notion of violence and evil which lurks in the hearts of every human being.

I know I have used these quotes several times in other blogs, to make the same point, but I came back to the same ideas while reading Tolkien.

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”    (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)

Satan and Our Passions

There is a debate among some Christians that the Lord’s Prayer should conclude with the words “deliver us from the Evil One” rather than the customary “deliver us from evil.”  The prayer thus asks God the Father not merely to protect us from generic evil but really from the works of Satan.

Some claim that nowhere in the Orthodox tradition can you find the saints speaking of a generic evil, but rather they all recognize the existence of the Evil one.   However, I came across an interesting quote from St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th Century) which maybe shows some of the Fathers had a far more nuanced understanding of Satan and devils than we who live in a literally dominated society imagine.    Here is the poem St. Ephrem wrote.  Satan is the speaker:

How many satans there are in a person,
but it is I alone whom everyone curses.
A person’s anger is [like]
a devil which harasses him daily.      Other demons are like travelers
who only move on if they are forced to,      but as for anger,
even if all the righteous adjure it,
it will  not be rooted out from its place.
Instead of hating destructive envy,
everyone hates some weak and wretched devil!

(Ephrem the Syrian SELECT POEMS, p 143)

St. Ephrem has Satan call the many passions (like anger and envy) of a person “satans” but really is acknowleding these passions are not demons but things residing within each human.   Jesus speaks about this same idea in Mark 7:21-23 where He notes that evil lurks in the heart of each human but He does not blame the Evil One.

The Lord Jesus said: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”  (Mark 7:21-23)

St. Ephrem says a person’s anger is like a devil, and in that sense is demonic, but it isn’t a devil acting in a person.  The reality is our passions can imitate devilish behavior which is why we need the asceticism of self denial and self control – to contain the passions which are like demons in us.   Perhaps with a bit of humor, St. Ephrem has Satan lamenting that everyone blames him for all their sins and that  everyone hates him alone because they fail to recognize themselves as the source of their own passions.  St. Ephrem cleverly has the Father of Lies demurring the fact that we humans lie to ourselves blaming some poor devil for things which in fact are our own passions (like envy for example).

Satan deserves no blame for the passions and behaviors in which a human chooses to engage.  People blame devils for their faults rather than do the hard work of dealing with their destructive passions.

it is an interesting poem which does not blame Satan for all our woes, but rather St. Ephrem acknowledges that the heart is the home and source of much evil in the world.  We need to engage in a spiritual warfare within ourselves and with our own passions rather than blaming Satan.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.   (James 4:7)

God’s Motivation: Love or Evil?

Recently I read some email comments about the power of evil in the world.  The comments implied that it was because of evil on earth that God sent His Son into the world, and that the death of Christ on the cross was also the result of evil.  Thus, the way the story was being presented it was the existence of evil that caused the incarnation.

The corollary of attributing God’s saving action to evil would then be to say, thanks to evil, God became incarnate.  For in this thinking it is evil which motivates God to do something for His creatures.  Yet the witness of John 3:16 is clear that it is God’s love which motivates Him toward the world, not the existence of evil.

For God so loved the world

that He gave His own dear Son

that whoever believes in Him

would have eternal life.

The true motivation of the God who is love is clear in the writings of certain saints of the Church.  St. Isaac of Syria (7th Cent) attributes the entire incarnation and death of Christ to one thing only: God’s love. Whatever happened to Christ is because of God’s love, not because of the power of evil in the world.  St. Isaac, so I’ve read, does not attribute the suffering and death of Christ to sin, original sin, Satan, death or evil. In fact some scholars say you would be hard pressed to find in Isaac’s writings any such “theology of the cross”: No substitutionary death of Christ, no demand for justice, no price being paid to anyone. I’ve read similar claims about St. Ephrem of Syria (4th Cent) as well.

Some could rightfully object that neither St. Ephrem or  St. Isaac encompasses the entire Tradition of the Church. Others would say that the theology of the cross is already nascent if not full blown in St. Paul whether the patristic saints mention it or not.

Be that as it may, St. Isaac’s thought is part of the tradition of the Church, and his theology counterbalances those writings which overly credit evil with causing God to act.  Evil is not the cause of everything, especially not of the incarnation of the Word.  Some would say it can’t be the cause of anything for it doesn’t have substance.

“But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. ‘For God so loved the the world, that He gave His only begotten Son over to death for its sake.’ This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself.” (St. Isaac the Syrian THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES, p 345)

Love, not justice let alone evil, is the basis of the incarnation according to St. Isaac.  God’s love, especially for the Eastern Patristic writers,  is also the cause for Christ descending into Hades upon His death and rescuing all the dead from the power of sin, evil and death.

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL  points out that there was a difference between Eastern and Western Patristic period writers in understanding the  descent of Christ into Hades.  The Western fathers tended to believe that Christ rescued only the righteous from Hades and left the sinners there.  The Eastern fathers thought that would not really be love but only justice.  The Eastern fathers, believing God’s motivation to be love, saw Christ as emptying Hades of everyone.  This is the triumph of God’s love over sin, death and even the limits of justice.  (Interestingly, according to St. Irenaeus,  the heretic Marcion wrote that Christ rescued the sinners from Hades – thus Cain and Lamech raced out of Hades to embrace Christ their savior when He descended into Hades, while the Jewish righteous – such as Noah – relying on Torah chose to stay in Hades thinking a graceful exit from Hades must be a trick, and that the OT righteous decided to stay in Hades until they had opportunity to show God how righteous they had been).

So the Eastern Fathers saw Christ as rescuing us from Hades and death (the both of which are our enemies), whereas the Western fathers tended to see Hades and death as part of God’s justice and so God would hardly be saving us/sinners from his own justice.  Perhaps in this Western version sin helps separate the good from the evil – the good work to overcome their sins while the evil must pay for their sins eternally.   It is all the works-righteousness idea playing (working?) itself out.

Sin and death therefore are either that which separates us from God and which must be overcome by the incarnation,  death and resurrection of Christ (a view common in the Christian East),  OR   sin and death are the very conditions necessary in order for God to be our Savior and thus can be said to cause salvation.  A number of the Eastern Patristic Saints were convinced that love alone was what caused God to act on our behalf – in the incarnation and in the crucifixion.  Evil is not the cause of God’s plan of salvation, rather God’s love destroys evil in all of its manifestations including sin and death.   Evil does not cause God to act.  The God who is love acts according to His own nature to overcome evil.  Love conquers all.